George Takei's New Graphic Novel Explores His Young Life Inside American Internment Camps
George Takei has lived long and prospered as an American actor, activist, and author. Although he’s best known for playing Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek television series, Takei has spent much of the last 20 years retelling his time spent living in U.S.-run internment camps during World War II.
Despite being born in Los Angeles, Takei -- along with his family and tens of thousands of Japanese Americans -- was forced out of his home by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Takei and his family had to relocate to horse stables in Santa Anita Park and eventually to the Tule Lake Relocation Center in northern California.
Takei was recently on The Colin McEnroe Show to discuss his new graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy, which details his days living in those internment camps. For Takei, the new comic book not only covers that difficult time in Takei’s life, but he says it serves as a reminder: Don’t forget history, no matter how troubling the subject.
Note: This interview was edited for clarity and length. Listen to the entire interview with Takei and McEnroe, which aired on August 21, 2019.
On the day his family had to leave home...
I had just turned five years old, and on April 20th, 1942...my parents got me up very early one morning together with my brother, who is a year younger. [They gathered us and] our baby sister who was an infant and they dressed us hurriedly and my brother and I were told to wait in the living room while our parents did some last-minute packing in the bedroom. And so my brother and I were just standing by the front window gazing out and suddenly we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway.
They carried rifles with shiny bayonets on them. They stomped up the porch and with their fists began pounding on the front door. It was a terrifying sound. The whole house seemed to tremble with that pounding. My father came out of the bedroom and answered the door. And literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our home.
My father gave my brother and me small packages to carry. He hefted two heavy suitcases and we followed him out onto the driveway and we stood there waiting for our mother to come out. When she finally came out she had our baby sister in one arm and a huge duffel bag and the other. And tears were streaming down her cheeks. It was a terrifying morning that I can never forget.
On being treated differently despite being American...
My mother was born in Sacramento California…. My father was born in Japan, a province called Yamanashi at the foot of Mt. Fuji. But he lost his mother when he was very young and my widower grandfather decided he's going to seek new opportunities in the U.S. He came to San Francisco with his two boys. My father was the younger of the two boys. So my father grew up in San Francisco. He was reared there, educated there, and he always considered himself a San Franciscan. And he was very Americanized. He spoke English fluently [and] Japanese fluently. And so we were Americans.
The fear after Pearl Harbor...
When Pearl Harbor was bombed...hysteria, fear of another bombing on the West Coast would hit. And that fear that hysteria swept all across this country. And we happen to look different from the rest of America. We happened to look just like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. And so that hysteria together with racism combine to stampede even the president of the United States.
[Roosevelt] signed the executive order numbered 9066 which ordered all of us to be imprisoned with no charges. There were no charges, therefore, no trial. Due process, the central pillar of our justice system, simply disappeared. And the soldiers came up came to our home and rounded us up together with a hundred and twenty thousand other Japanese Americans from the West Coast and imprisoned us in ten barbed-wire prison camps in some of the most hellish places, most isolated places in the United States.
On the internment camps...
When we were rounded up, the construction wasn't finished yet so we were taken to Santa Anita racetrack--a glamorous racetrack where movie stars used to go and bet on horses. But that became an assembly center—[that] was the term that they used. There was a chain-link fence around this once glamorous racetrack with concertina wires around at the top. Armed U.S. military men were guarding over us. It became a temporary internment camp where we were housed in horse stalls. We were herded over to the stable area and each family of comparable size to ours--we were three children and two parents five of us--and we were assigned horse stalls still pungent with the stink of horse manure.
But the five-year-old me I thought it was fun to sleep with the horses. We showered where the horses were washed outdoors. Men went first and we went with our father and my mother with the women's group later on. We were treated like animals.
On traveling between different concentration camps...
We were tagged, we had to wear the tag all the time and, we were put on trains with armed guards sentries at both ends of each car as if we were criminals. They treated us like animals or on the train, like criminals, and occasionally, you know, it'd be a boring job for them. So, you know, they had to maintain that parade rest position, they would [occasionally] move and thump their rifle on the floor and we got used to it. And my father told us that we were going on a long vacation. And so I thought everybody went on vacation to a place called Arkansas with armed escorts.
Whenever we reached a town on the way, then the shade had to be drawn. We were not to be seen. I was a curious kid and I was right by the window. And so when my mother wasn't looking I shoved the shade up a little bit and to look outside because I heard wonderful sounds of trolleys being rolled across or people talking and laughing. But whenever we got caught my mother would slam the shade down so that the guards wouldn't catch us. But I thought this was normal. I thought this was the way people went on vacations.
On what has and hasn’t changed between then and now...
At the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, we have all these photographs of ugly graffiti painted on walls: ”Japs keep on moving. Japs don't belong here. Japs go home.” And that's kind of an echo that we hear today of “Go home” or “Lock her up.” The slogan was lock up the Japs, so we keep repeating history.
On why he’s sharing his story again, but as a graphic novel...
This was written originally for my autobiography which was published in 1994. I share it again in this graphic memoir where we tell the story of my childhood imprisonment from the eyes of an absolutely irresistibly adorable five-year-old me. And that's thanks to our Mandy Dekker, [she’s] a very gifted manga artist. She captures emotions on a face with a dot and the swoop of a line or a squiggle here.
On people’s reaction to his time spent in imprisonment...
I wrote my autobiography in 1994 with this chapter of American history as the beginning of my autobiography. But still to this day, I am confronted by people that I consider well-read, well-informed people [and] when I tell them about my childhood imprisonment, they're shocked. And I'm shocked that they're shocked because I've been taught lecturing at universities all across the country. We've put on a musical on Broadway [Allegiance] about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans and the tragedy of that story. And I thought the best way perhaps to reach or hope for the future of America is to make it a comic strip.
I read comic books and I still remember some of the stories that I read and I thought if we reach the young reader the teenagers and the young American readers and they know that's at that age when you're absorbing in information and you keep it for the rest of your lives -- then we will have another generation of Americans. But this time informed on the dark chapters of American history, and, if we have enough Americans in the future that know this history, hopefully, it won't repeat itself. But, alas, we are repeating it now.
Correction: This post previously said President Theodore Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president who issued the executive order.